1902 Encyclopedia > Strabo

Ancient Greek geographer, geophysicist and historian
(64 BC - 25 AD)

STRABO, the famous geographer and historian, was born at Amasea in Pontus, a city which had been Hellenized to a great extent. Of his father's family we know nothing; but several of his mother's relations, who were probably Greeks, had held important posts under Mithradates Euer-getes and his famous son Mithradates Eupator. Dorylaus, a distinguished general of Mithradates Euergetes, was the great-grandfather of Strabo's mother. After the murder of that king, Dorylaus, who at that time was collecting mercenaries in Crete, where he had obtained the command in a successful war of the Cnossians against Gortyn, settled at Cnossus. By Sterope, a Macedonian, he had a daughter and two sons,—Lagetas and Stratarchus. Dorylaus had a brother Philetaerus, whose son Dorylaus was brought up with Mithradates Eupator. This king, at the instance of his friend invited back to Pontus the family of Dorylaus, who was himself now dead, as was also his son Lagetas. Strabo saw Stratarchus in extreme old age. The daughter of Lagetas was the mother of Strabo's mother. Moaphernes, an uncle of Strabo's mother, probably on the father's side, was governor of Colchis under Mithradates Eupator. His mother's father must have held an important position, for, seeing the impending downfall of the king, and also in anger against him for having put to death his kinsmen Tibius and Theophilus, he handed over fifteen forts to Lucullus. In spite of this, with the ruin of the king the fortunes of the family fell, since Pompey refused to ratify the rewards promised by Lucullus.

Life.—Though the exact date of Strabo's birth is unknown, a close approximation is possible. Clinton places it not later than 54 B.C. The most probable date lies between 64 and 62, since he speaks of certain events occurring at the former as "a little before my time," whilst he describes an occurrence in the latter year as " in my own time," phrases which he uses elsewhere with great exactness in speaking of persons and events. He received a good education in the Greek poets, especially Homer; he studied at Nysa under the grammarian Aristodemus, under Tyrannio the grammarian at Rome, under the philosopher Xenarchus either at Rome or Alexandria, and he had studied Aristotle along with Boethus (possibly at Rome under Tyrannio, who had access to the Aristotelian writings in Sulla's library). It is to be noted that from none of those teachers was he likely to learn mathematics or astronomy. He was at Corinth in 29 B.C., where he saw Octavian on his return from Egypt to celebrate his triumph for Actium. He was in Egypt in 24 B.C., and took the opportunity of ascending the Nile in company with the prefect Aelius Gallus. He was at Rome after 14 A.D., for he describes (v. 236) as an eyewitness the place where the body of Augustus was burnt in the Campus. He was still writing in 21 A.D. The date of his death is unknown. Strabo's statement that he saw P. Servilius Isauricus has caused some difficulty. This Servilius died at Rome in 44 B.C. at an advanced age. Some suppose that Strabo confused him with P. Servilius Casca, also called Isauricus, or some other distinguished Roman whom he had seen in Asia, but by his words he clearly means the conqueror of the Isaurians. This difficulty only arises from an entirely unwarranted assumption that Strabo was on his way to Rome for the first time in 29 B.C. We have seen that he studied under Tyrannio in that city; if he did so after 29 B.C. Tyrannio must have been very old, which Strabo would probably have men-tioned, as he does in the case of Aristodemus. Although he had seen a comparatively small portion of the regions which he describes, he had travelled much, as he states himself : " Westward I have journeyed to the parts of Etruria opposite Sardinia; towards the south from the Euxine to the borders of Ethiopia; and perhaps not one of those who have written geographies has visited more places than I have between those limits. For those who have gone farther west have not gone so far eastward, and the case is the same with the regions between the northern and southern limits." The fulness of his descrip-tion in certain places, contrasted with the meagreness and inaccuracy in others, seems to indicate that in the former cases he had actually visited the places, but that he is dependent on second-hand information for the latter. He tells us that he had seen Egypt as far south as Syene and Phik-e, Comana in Cappadocia, Ephesus, Mylasa, Nysa and Hierapolis in Phrygia, Gyarus, and Populonia. Of Greece proper he saw but little; he visited Corinth, Athens, Megara, and places in their vicinity, and perhaps Argos, although he was not aware that the ruins of Mycenae still existed; he had seen Cyrene from the sea, probably on his voyage from Puteoli to Alexandria. He remained at the latter place a long time, probably amassing materials, and studying astronomy and mathematics. For nowhere could he have had a better means of consulting the works of historians, geographers, and astronomers, such as Eratosthenes, Posidonius, Hipparchus, and Apollodorus. When and where he went from Egypt we know not. It has been commonly assumed that he returned home to Amasea. For this there are no grounds. Probabilities are in favour of his having returned to Rome, where he undoubtedly resided in his old age. The place of his death is unknown; but, since we find him at Rome in what must in the course of nature have been the closing years of his life, it is not unreasonable to suppose that there he died. Various passages in his work indicate that he held by the Stoic rule.

Works.—His earliest writings were two (not one, as commonly stated) historical works now lost, which he himself describes (xi. 515) as his Historical Memoirs and his Continuation of Polybius. There can be no doubt but that these were two distinct works; for he speaks (ii. 70) of having treated of the exploits of Alexander in his Memoirs, a topic which could not have found a place in a work which began where that of Polybius ended (146 B.C.). According to Suidas, the continuation of Polybius was in forty-three books. Plutarch, who calls him "the Philosopher," quotes Strabo's Memoirs (Luc., 28), and cites him as an historian (Sulla, 26). Josephus, who constantly calls him "the Cappadocian," often quotes from him, but does not mention the title of the work.

The Geography is the most important work on that science which antiquity has left us. It was, as far as we know, the first attempt to collect all the geographical knowledge at the time attainable, and to compose a general treatise on geography. It must not be regarded as nothing more than a new edition of Eratosthenes. In general outline it follows necessarily the work of the last-named geographer, who had first laid down a scientific basis for geography on which his successors could not help building. Strabo made considerable alterations, but not always for the better. The three books of the older work formed a strictly technical geographical treatise. Its small size prevented it from containing any such general description of separate countries as Strabo rightly conceived to fall within the scope of the geographer. "Strabo indeed appears to be the first who conceived a complete geographical treatise as comprising the four divisions of mathematical, physical, political, and historical geography, and he endeavoured, however imperfectly, to keep all these objects in view." Moreover, the incidental historical notices, which are often of great value and interest, are all his own. These digressions at times interrupt the symmetry of his plan; but Strabo had all the Greek love of legendary lore, and he discusses questions relating to the journeyings of Heracles as earnestly as if they were events within recent history. He regarded Homer as the source of all wisdom and knowledge, and consequently accepted the Homeric geography in its entirety, as needing only proper explanation for the removal of all difficulties. On the other hand, he treats the work of Herodotus with undeserved contempt, and classes him with Ctesias and other "marvel-mongers"; and yet in some respects Herodotus had better information—for instance, in regard to the Caspian—than that possessed by Strabo himself. Again, Strabo may be censured for discarding the statements of Pytheas respecting the west and north of Europe, accepted as they had been by Eratosthenes. But in this he relied on Polybius, whom he might justly consider as having from his position at Borne far better means of gaining accurate information about those regions. A critical sagacity far stronger than that of Strabo might well have erred at a time when the data for forming accurate judgments on such questions were so meagre and chaotic. It must be admitted that the statements of Pytheas did not accord with the theory of Strabo just in those very points where he was at variance with Erato-sthenes. He showed likewise an unwarranted scepticism in reference to the island of Cerne on the west coast of Africa, which without doubt the Carthaginians had long used as an emporium. Strabo has been censured for not making a greater use of Eoman authorities. Although the Boman arms had opened up much of the north and west, be follows the Greek writers almost exclusively in his description of Spain, Gaul, Britain, Germany, and even Italy. For, although he refers to Caesar's Commentaries once by name, and has evidently made use of them in other passages, he but imperfectly availed himself of that work. He designed his geography as a sequel to his historical writings, and it had as it were grown out of his historical materials. Such materials were chiefly Greek. We cannot wonder if a man who at an advanced age has commenced a new work utilizes his old material, and has not the energy to undertake fresh researches. Again, if Strabo amassed his material in the library of Alexandria, Greek authorities would naturally furnish the great bulk of his collections. This involves the questions—When and where did he compose the work? He began it probably later than 9 B.C. For he says that, just as Alexander had opened up knowledge of the East, so the Roman arms had now opened up the geography of the West as far as the Elbe. This Drusus accomplished in 9 B.C. Strabo was still engaged on the work, or certain parts of it, in 19 A.D., for he mentions in the fourth book the conquest of the Taurisci as having taken place thirty-three years before; he also speaks, in the sixth book, of Germanicus, who died in 20 A.D., as still alive, and in the seventeenth book he speaks of the death of Juba II. (21 A.D.) as a recent event. As it is not probable that he wrote for the first time all of his work except the first three books between 19 and 21 A.D., we must not make use of these passages as data for determining the date of composition of the whole work, or even of particular books, but rather ought we to regard them as insertions. Strabo, as already pointed out, was at Rome after the death of Augustus (14 A.D.) ; in book vii. 290 and in book xiii. 609 he uses the terms "here" and "hither " in reference to Rome. It may be inferred from these passages that Strabo certainly revised, if he did not write, the entire work at Rome. If he returned to Rome after a long sojourn in Alexandria, this explains the defectiveness of his information about the countries to the east of his native land, and renders it possible for him to have made use of the chorography of Agrippa, and to have obtained the few incidents from Roman sources which here and there appear in his work.

He designed the work for the statesman rather than for the student. He therefore endeavours to give a general sketch of the character, physical peculiarities, and natural productions of each country, and consequently gives us much valuable information respecting ethnology, trade, and metallurgy. It was almost necessary that in such an attempt he should select what he thought most important for description, and at times omit what we deem of more importance. With respect to physical geography, his work is a great advance on all preceding ones. Judged by modern standards, his description of the direction of rivers and mountain-chains seems defective, but allowance must be made for difficulties in procuring information, and for want of accurate instruments. In respect of mathematical geography, his want of high scientific train-ing was of no great hindrance. He had before him the results of Eratosthenes, Hipparchus, and Posidonius. The chief conclusions of astronomers concerning the spherical figure and dimensions of the earth, its relation to the heavenly bodies, and the great circles of the globe—the equator, the ecliptic, and the tropics—were considered as well established. He accepted also the division into five zones; he quotes approvingly the assertion of Hipparchus that it was impossible to make real advances in geography without astronomical observations for determining lati-tudes and longitudes.

The work consists of seventeen books, of which the seventh is imperfect. The first two books form a general introduction ; the next ten deal with Europe, the four following with Asia, and the last with Africa. The first two books are meant to comprise a general survey of the progress of geography from the earliest times down to his own day. Unmethodical though they are, we owe to these books almost all we know of the geographical systems of his predecessors, especially that of Eratosthenes. Unfortunately he con-tents himself with disjointed criticism of detail instead of giving us an orderly statement of the previous systems. The first book begins with his claim to have geography regarded as a branch of philosophy, and he supports this claim by enumerating the philosophers who have studied it, beginning from Homer, as proofs of whose knowledge he adduces his acquaintance with the Ocean, the Ethiopians, aud the Scythians. This discussion of Homer's geogra-phy takes up more than half the book. Passing over the early geo-graphers, not even mentioning Herodotus, he censures Eratosthenes for using unreliable authorities, and for casting doubts on the voyages of Jason and other early navigators. He next criticizes the physical views of Eratosthenes concerning the changes in the earth's surface, and especially the hypothesis, adopted from Strato, that by sudden disruptions of land the Euxine and Mediterranean had become united to the ocean, and had sunk to their present level, which theory they supported by pointing to sea shells at places high above the sea. This doctrine Strabo rightly rejected, and referred such phenomena to those changes which with constant operation produce subsidences and elevations of the land; and he quotes many instances of places engulfed by earthquakes, the disappearance of some islands, and the appearing of others. Hence he thinks it possible that even Sicily has been thrown up by the fires of Etna. Sir C. Lyell eulogizes Strabo's geological speculations for a soundness of view very unusual on such subjects amongst the ancients. Examining the second book of Eratosthenes, he discusses the length and breadth of the inhabited world, and its division into three continents. He blames Eratosthenes for believing Pytheas, and denies the existence of Thule, consequently rejecting the latitude assigned to it by Eratosthenes, who had taken it as the northernmost limit of the inhabited world. Strabo holds Ierne (Ireland), which lies north of Britain, to be the farthest land in that direction, and brings the northern limit much farther south. As he adopts Eratosthenes's southern limit,—that through the Cinnamon Region and Taprobane (Ceylon),—it follows that in his view Eratosthenes had made the inhabited world too broad. As the Greeks assumed that the world was twice as long as it was broad, Eratosthenes accordingly had made it too long likewise ; but, though Strabo shortens it on the west, there is no material difference between him and Eratosthenes. In this connexion he gives his remarkable speculation that, as the inhabited world was only one-third of the globe's circumference, there might be two or more inhabited worlds besides. In the second book he discusses the changes introduced by Eratosthenes, and rightly defends him from the attacks of Hipparchus. He adopts for Asia the map of Eratosthenes as a whole, for little additional knowledge had been gained in the interval. He even still regards the Caspian as opening into the Northern Ocean, as stated by Patrocles. In the general outline of Africa he makes no change, but he rejects the statement of Eratosthenes about Cerne. It is with respect to western and northern Europe that Strabo had knowledge denied to Eratosthenes. Roman conquest had opened up many places and peoples, yet his general map of Europe is inferior to that of his predecessor. After discussing the "seals" of Eratosthenes, he considers the views of Posidonius and Polybius, and recounts the voyages of Eudoxus of Cyzicus. ' Then having dealt with the division into zones, due to Parmenides, he states his own views, discussing briefly the mathematical geography: the earth is~-spherical and placed in the centre of the universe ; he assumes five zor.es, and the circles on the sphere—the equator, the ecliptic or zodiac, the tropics, and the arctic circles ; he assumes the earth's circumference as given by Eratosthenes, 252,000 stades ( = 25,200 geographical miles), and his division of the great circle into sixtieth parts; the habitable world, the geographer's proper province, shaped like a chlamys, occupies a quadrilateral space in the northern hemi-sphere, rilling little more than one-third of the north temperate zone; its maximum length is 70,000 stades, its breadth less than 30,000 stades. Whilst correcting the error by which his predecessors placed Massilia and Byzantium in the same latitude, he falls into an equal mistake by placing the former city two degrees south, instead of two degrees north of Byzantium. As Massilia is his cardinal point for measurements, this error distorts his whole map of the Mediterranean and western Europe, the mouths of the Rhine and Danube being in the same latitude. He next gives directions for making a plane map of the world, as a globe of sufficient size, like that of Crates, is too cumbrous. All lines that are circles on a globe must be straight lines on the map. Before describing each country in detail, he gives a general sketch of the habitable world with reference to seas, continents, and peoples, and explains the doctrine of climate and of the shadows projected by objects in consequence of the sun's varying position with respect to them. In the third book, starting from the Straits, he begins his description with Iberia, which he likens in shape to a bull's hide. His chief authorities were Artemidorus, whom he uses for the coasts of the Mediterranean and ocean generally, Eratosthenes, Posidonius, Polybius, Pherecydes, Timosthenes, Asclepiades, Myrleanus, and Dicsearchus. He gives a valuable account of the Roman administrative system, probably gained from his own inquiries, also of the native tribes, of the mines and methods of mining, and of the remains of the Greek and Phcenician settlements; he describes the Balearic Isles, following Artemidorus, and at the end of the book mentions the Cassiterides, which he seems to have identified with the Scilly Isles, probably erroneously, and describes their inhabitants as wearing long black garments, and walking about with long wands in their hands, looking like the Furies of tragedy. It is remarkable that he has no notion of the proximity of the Tin Islands to Britain, but treats them in connexion with Spain. The fourth book deals with Gaul in its fourfold division under Augustus, gives a meagre account of Britain, its trade and relations with Rome, and mentions Ireland, the natives of which were said to be cannibals and to hold their women in common, and finally treats of the Alps. His authorities were Posidonius, who had travelled in Gaul and Britain, Artemidorus, Ephorus, Timagenes, Aristotle, Polybius, Asinius Pollio, and Caesar. For Britain Pytheas, as quoted by others, furnished some important details. His description of Gallia Narbonensis is fuller than that of the rest of Gaul. He mentions the four great Roman roads converging at Lyons, probably following the chorography of Agrippa. He conceives the Pyrenees as running north and south, and parallel to the Rhine, and Britain as lying north of Gaul, extending from the Pyrenees to the Rhine's mouths. Of the Alpine region he gives an excellent description. He undoubtedly must have gathered much information for this book at Rome. The fifth and sixth books contain an accurate description of Italy and the adjacent islands. Besides his own observation he used Eratosthenes, Polybius, Artemidorus, Ephorus, Fabius Pictor, Coelius, Antiochus of Syracuse for southern Italy, and the "chorographer," who was certainly a Roman, as he gave his distances in miles, and who probably was Agrippa, the chief objection to such an authorship being the wrong assumption that Strabo was not in Italy after 24 B.C., whilst Agrippa's work wras not published until after his death 12 B.C. The sixth book ends with a short but valuable sketch of the extent and condition of the Roman empire. The seventh comprises northern and eastern Europe, both north and south of the Danube, Illyricum, Pannonia, Dalmatia, the coast of Thrace and the Euxine, and Epirus. The part which dealt with Macedonia and Thrace is only known to us from the epitomes. We do not know his authorities for the German tribes, but he probably used Roman materials. For the other northern tribes he had Posidonius, whilst for the region south of the Danube he had Aristotle's lost work on Polities, Polybius, Posidonius, Theopompus, and Ephorus. The eighth, ninth, and tenth books contain his description of the mainland of Greece and the islands, which he treats rather as an antiquariau than a geographer, using chiefly, besides Homer, Apollodorus, Demetrius of Scepsis, Ephorus, and Eudoxus. Personally he had but little knowledge. With the eleventh begins Asia. Divided from Europe by the Don, it is split up into two large masses by the Taurus. Beginning with the region bounded by the Taurus, Caspian, and Euxine, he next describes the part east of the Caspian, then those south of the Caucasus, Media, and Armenia. His authorities are Artemidorus, Eratosthenes, Theophanes, Herodotus, Apollodorus of Artemita, Patrocles, Metrodorus of Scepsis, Hypsicrates of Amisus, Posidonius, and Aristobulus. In the twelfth he describes Asia Minor, basing his description on oral information, personal observation, and the Greek writers. In the thirteenth he continues with Asia Minor, devoting much space to the Troad, his sources being Demetrius, Menecrates, and the Greek mythographers. With the fourteenth he ends Asia Minor and the islands lying off it, using, in addition to the authorities for the last, Pherecydes, Thucydides, Anaximenes of Lampsacus, Herodotus, Ephorus, Artemidorus, Eratosthenes, and Posidonius. The fifteenth deals with India and Persia, giving much valuable information from Patrocles, Aristobulus, Nearchus, the historians of the campaigns of Alexander and Seleucus, and with reserve from Megasthenes, Onesicritus, Deimachus, and Clitarchus. In the sixteenth he treats of Assyria, under which he includes Babylonia and Mesopotamia, Syria, Phoenicia, Palestine, the Persian Gulf, the Red Sea and the coast of Ethiopia, and Arabia. For Asia he used the historians of Alexander, Eratosthenes and Herodotus; for Judaea and Syria probably Posidonius, himself a native of Apamea; for Arabia and the coast of Libya Eratosthenes and Artemidorus, the latter of whom followed Agatharchides of Cnidus. Strabo must have got many details about Arabia from iElius Gallus and the Stoic Athenodorus. The last book comprises Egypt, Ethiopia, and the north coast of Libya. He describes Egypt from his own observation, having gained much information at Alexandria in addition to that of Eudoxus, Aristo, Eratosthenes, Polybius, and Posidonius, using the last three with the addition of Iphicrates for Libya, and for Ethiopia Petronius, Herodotus, and Agatharchides. Though probably acquainted with the work of Juba, he did not make much use of it. The book concludes with a summary of the provinces of the Roman empire, as organized by Augustus into senatorial and imperial.

EDITIONS.—Aldus, Venice, 1516; Hopper and Heresbach, Basel, 1549; Xylander, Basel, 1571; Casaubon, Geneva, 1587, Paris, 1620 (Casaubon revised the text) ; Almeloveen, Amsterdam, 1707, reprinted Casaubon's text; Falconer, Oxford, 1807, reprinted Almeloveen's text; Siebenkees and Tzschucke, Leipsic, 1811; Koray, Paris, 1815-18, the first really critical edition; Kramer, Berlin, 1844-52; C. Müller, Paris, 1853 ; Meineke, Leipsic, 1877.

TRANSLATIONS.—Latin: Guarini and Gregorio, 1471; Xylander, 1571. French: Koray and Letronne, 1805-19. German: Groskurd, 1833 (with dissertations). Italian: Ambrosoli, 1S28.

DISSERTATIONS, &c.—Bunbury, Ancient Geography; Heeren; Hasenmiiller; Niese, Hermes, 1878. (W. RI.)

The above article was written by: William Ridgeway, M.A., Professor of Greek, Queen's College, Cork.

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